Relax, it’s just a vacation

When I see myself on the cruise ship, I’m walking on the 10th deck, going by the two swimming pools and six hot tubs and the buffet area that took up just as much space as the swimming pools. I’m looking for one of my family members with whom I’ve come on the cruise in the buffet area. It’s like looking for someone in IKEA. There are Americans everywhere. Most of them from New York. Most of them with New York accents. And most of them overweight. They’re sitting in the sun, in the pools, at the buffet. The few of them that I get a chance to speak to over the course of my trip – encounters in the hot tub or on shore excursions – are very nice. But my main exposure to them is in line at the buffet, where they’re usually discussing what the best food is and then asking the servers behind the counter to give them this cut of meat or that strawberry sundae or that spoonful of potatoes – usually politely, but also usually with far more assertiveness than any self-respecting Canadian would put into her voice (so it’s hard for me to judge if they are being polite enough to the poor crew) and always with a certain hunger that makes me very aware of how the cruise experience is really all about satisfying appetites. For all my being aware of these overweight folks demanding more and more food, I’m having the exact same thoughts as they are around the buffet. When I discover the all-you-can-eat sushi bar my heart surges.

In his landmark 20+ page long form magazine article on the cruiseship experience, David Foster Wallace describes it as despair-inducing and filled with a kind of customer care he calls pampering. I disagree with him about the despair, but pampering really is the right word. I experienced better service and more expensive comfort in one week than I have in my life.

The rooms are not called rooms. They’re called staterooms, although they’re about the third the size of a hotel room. My brother and I shared one, and we had two “stateroom attendants” – housekeepers, basically. Their names were Brian and Ryan, both from the Philippines, and while they didn’t seem that much older than us, they were forever calling us “Mr. William” and “Mr. David.” They cleaned our room two or three times a day, making our beds, folding our clothes, replacing towels, and just tidying generally. One day when I happened to leave my underwear on the floor, I returned to find them neatly folded on the bed. Every night when we came in to go to sleep, there were little chocolates on our pillows.

Brian, Ryan and most of the 900 crew on the ship seemed simply born to serve. Whenever you passed a crew member in the hallway, he looked up casually and naturally into your eyes, smiled, and said hello. It was a simple courtesy that brightened up my day for a split second – even though I’m sure making eye contact and greeting guests as they walk by is a strict order from on high for the crew.

At the same time, this professional courtesy just reminded me that they were staff, I was paying them (of course not me, my parents – they very generously brought me along on their cruise). Wanting to try out the smiling greeting as a way of life, I shyly tried it on some of the other guests, but of course, that was awkward.

And perhaps staff are always so reverent in posh establishments. I really wouldn’t know. And maybe there is some tyrannical Greek cruiseship maestro hovering over all of them with a whip – Wallace said there was one such tyrant on his boat.

The staff weren’t bursting with joy, but their kindness didn’t seem forced either. It’s hard to really evaluate how high morale was among them, but I would bet that it’s much higher than at your average McDonald’s.

More than anything, it’s clear that a job on the Celebrity Summit (the name of our ship) was a step up from whatever job was available to them back home. While all the guests came from the US, Canada and Europe, all of the crew came from poorer countries. Large numbers from Southeast Asia, and others from India, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. They all had accents. From what I understood from Brian, most of them are on short-term contracts, even the ones who have been working there for many years.

While I’d say that a majority of the guests were overweight (they reminded me a bit of the spaceship citizens in WALL-E), almost no crew members were (except for the head chef, a gargantuan Frenchman). I wonder what they feed the crew…

Meanwhile, the ship tried to get as much money out of its passengers in seven days as it could, be it through alcohol, special activities like sharing a meal with the captain, acupuncture treatment, or the large casino.

Our boat docked three days in Bermuda, after leaving from New York City. The cruiseship company offered all kinds of shore excursions to entertain us during our stay on the island. We noticed that kayaking and scuba diving had weight restrictions, generally between 250 and 400 pounds.

Bermuda, it turns out, is a lovely little pseudo-British island. The highlight of our trip was when the four of us rented bicycles and peddled half the island in a day – it’s that small. Everyone we asked for directions was very charming and the whole place just seemed quite authentic. I guess tourist season hadn’t really started. The roads were dusty and narrow, the brightly coloured houses short and squat with pyramid-like whitewashed limestone roofs, heavy enough to survive hurricanes. We followed the old railway track, now turned into a bike path. It rolled up and down, mainly within a kind of limited forest with constant views of the turquoise ocean. On our other days in port, we went snorkeling in waters the Bermudians don’t dip into until after the May long weekend, and rented kayaks in what became a raging downpour. Both experiences were entirely satisfactory. I saw some beautiful fish and the whole kayaking experience was kind of surreal. On the motorboat ride back from the kayaking lagoon, the mist off the water in the rain was so thick that all of a sudden we completely lost sight of shore. Our young guide was almost as lost as we were, and I started to think about survival strategies.

I liked getting dressed up for dinner in the “Cosmopolitan Restaurant” every night with my mum, dad and brother. Choosing from four different courses every night, discussing the food with each other. Strolling the long decks of the ship together afterwards, going by various bars and clubs, all with live music acts.

I’ve never eaten so well for a week at a time before. I’m someone who’s always hungry and for once, I could be always full. I got used to the ship rocking back and forth, sometimes so forcefully as to make you grab onto the nearest piece of furniture, and to looking out and seeing water all around me. I slept to the sound of the waves and the creaking of the wooden walls of my room.

It was a week for me to be alone with my thoughts, when I wasn’t with my family at meals or activities. My mind proved to be more troubling than any of the excesses of the cruiseship. It became a week of longing. Every evening, the ship hosted wonderful entertainment acts in its theatre, and I suddenly longed to be a Broadway singer and dancer – something I hadn’t really considered longing for in years. I longed for some friends my age among the other guests on the boat, and for some on-ship romance too. And I questioned journalism and my future like I haven’t done in a while. Now that I’m back on dry land in my comfortable little room in Ottawa with my world back intact, the questions and longings have receded and my life feels so much more normal. But I’ve scouted out an upcoming audition in Ottawa for a community musical.

The shows on the boat were terrific..A troupe of professional singers and dancers put on three short musical productions. A comedian called Smirnoff who has previously appeared on Seinfeld was genuinely funny. A Liberace-style pianist called Craig Dahn who wore a suit covered in sequins, even his shoes glittered, played the most rousing piano, accompanied by a fantastic jazz band. The piles of American and European retiree money on which the cruiseship industry floats have also created an oasis for creative types. Besides the nightly performances, there were musicians set up all over the ship, and all of them were worth listening to. Nothing like what you hear on the radio! Shows you how much good talent there is out there. Interesting that you have to go to a cruiseship to find it.

We had an MC to guide us through the nightly theatre performances – and actually, I felt like she was guiding us through the entire cruise experience, popping up at opportune moments to make announcements. While most of my fellow cruisers might have been strangers, the people who design these things understand that a seven-day cruise is still a collective experience. The captain made appearances and delivered messages over the PA system, and he had quit the jolly, outgoing personality. But I felt that our true leader was our MC, a woman called Sue Denning. Sue is a very British woman who must be about in her 50s, short and stout but always wearing steep heels and more often than not a poofy, poncho-like, glittery dress and quite a bit of makeup. Her hair was kept short and died a white-ish platinum blonde, so white that it almost seemed natural – almost. Sue sometimes sang, in a throaty, raspy voice. But her main job was to appear before shows with flowery speeches, praise for her performers, and a general enthusiasm and desire to get us excited and make us enjoy ourselves. “I can tell you” was perhaps her favorite expression. “I can tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that our resident a cappella quartet ‘Up till Two’ will be performing tomorrow in Mike’s lounge at 7:45 PM,” she might say. After every performer, it was Sue who got us to applaud long and hard – multiple ovations – “Give it up for so-and-so! Why not?” — “Why not” was also one of her favorite expressions. She shouted so much over the course of the week that her voice became horse and would sometimes break up a little bit as she yelled into the mic. Over and over she would ask us if we were having fun, and get us to cheer for this or that. I found it all a bit fake and a bit overzealous – but I couldn’t help but really like Sue Denning. I think she really cared about the ship, the guests and the entertainers. Her farewell speech on the last night really got to me – “I love what I do and I think it’s really important. Life is short.”

A sign of Sue’s greatness was a little conflict on the very first show of the cruise on the first night. A man was shouting out playful comments to Sue during the whole show. Eventually, she answered him and walked over to say hello when the man sitting right in front of the talkative one yelled out, “Don’t encourage that son of a bitch, he’s been ruining the show for me!”  This other spectator sounded ready to punch the happy talker. Sue very deftly tapped the angry man on the shoulder and said “Be careful, there are children around here” (in fact it was the angry man’s own young daughters). She also gently asked the cheering man to hush and walked back to the front of the stage, without engaging him in any conversation. It’s hard to get across but she basically defused a tense situation. At the next break between acts, she said to the audience, “I know that all of you are enjoying yourselves – with the exception of one!” And she may as well have winked.

The trouble with cruises perhaps is that you feel like you’ve signed up for and been guaranteed not only first-class service, accommodation and food, but also a good time. But like anything else, whether you have a good time or not is up to you. Relaxing on a ship for a week wasn’t that easy. I was definitely not always smiling adoringly from the ship’s deck, looking out at the waves in bliss. But there were good times with my family — getting to have the long Sunday-style dinners that we usually save for once a week – and good times with myself- at the buffet, sampling different types of sushi at five in the evening – reading volume four of Game of Thrones all afternoon – exercising in the pristine gym that I had sometimes nearly all to myself – never worrying about running out of time. Treating it like an adventure, something completely different, something to be conquered, it was satisfying. I’d do it again.


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